Apple's Icarus Effect

Pride goes before destruction, and with hackers targeting Macs and iPhones, Roger L. Kay says Apple's haughty spirit portends a fall

Just as those living in shiny houses of self-righteous glass often end up surrounded by shards of their former sanctimony, so Apple Inc. now finds itself the increasingly appealing target of software hackers.

For years, Apple's marketing has consisted of accentuating the positive and ignoring everything else. As hackers pillaged Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows operating system, Apple (AAPL) stressed that its computer platform was relatively virus-free, most notably in that snarky ad campaign, "I'm a PC. I'm a Mac." There was Windows, groaning under the weight of its security apparatus, like some knight of yesteryear packed in heavy armor who, once he fell off his horse, couldn't get up again. And on the other side, there was Apple strutting about, smacking its gloves together and posing for the crowd.

But now Apple is becoming a victim of its own success, and the irony is just too great to miss. Anyone with a mild sense of history is keeping track. The main reason Apple had been left alone by hackers was not by virtue of any superior security technology, the company's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Software is, after all, eminently hackable. Only sufficient motivation is required. And now that Apple's platforms have become more popular, hackers are getting motivated.

Target: iPhone

Apple sold nearly 7.8 million Mac desktop and laptop computers in 2007. That's a 37% gain over the number sold in 2006 and well more than double the 2001 volume. It's little surprise then that reports of Mac viruses have been rising steadily.

Even more than the Mac, the iPhone makes for an attractive target. Apple tried to keep tight control on the iPhone platform, which is also based on the Mac OS. But iPhone-philes had other ideas. Hackers went to town on the iPhone from day one, opening it for service with nondesignated wireless providers and dropping applications onto it at will. And now there's Pwnage, a product of the renegade iPhone Dev Team. Pwnage threatens to help programmers bypass the controls and tolls Apple hopes to impose on any iPhone application created with the just-released software kit.

As if there weren't already enough incentive to hack the iPhone, the 30% revenue "share" Apple will require for every application sold through the iTunes Store should do the trick. To cast Microsoft as the bad guy who'd stop at nothing to hook its customers' bank accounts up to an intravenous drip is just too much. Taking such a large cut just for distributing software is no more generous a policy than any coming out of Microsoft. Everyone is rooting for the hackers to win.

Getting Warmer

Apple, welcome to Microsoft's world! This is an environment in which you have to support thousands of developers of varying quality, and all sorts of apps, well made or not. Some of these developers make you look good, but others end up trashing your reputation. And despite your best efforts to monetize what they do, it's not always possible. The elegant simplicity of your platform just makes hacking easier. There is no such thing as real security. All you can do is throw up roadblocks—which, by the way, make it harder for both crooks and law-abiding citizens to drive on your roads.

Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, for the wax holding the feathers on the wings they were using to escape their island prison would melt in the sun. But the young man wouldn't heed his father and, reveling in his new power, passed his sire and kept going. When the wax warmed enough, the feathers fell apart, and he dropped into the sea.

Everyone makes mistakes. But society loves to repay hubris with derisive laughter.

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